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Ek Balam Maya Archeological Site. Maya Ruins, Yucatan Peninsula. Credit: bobiphil / Adobe Stock

Mexico Wants to Run a Tourist Train Through its Maya Heartland — Should It?

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President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has a dream for the Yucatan Peninsula. He wants to build a  train that will leverage the tourism economy of Cancun by bringing more visitors inland to the colonial cities, Maya villages and archaeological sites that dot the region.

The Yucatan is a unique Mexican cultural crossroads. Many Maya here continue to  farm, live and dress according to indigenous traditions developed millennia before the Spanish colonized the Americas. Travelers also come from across the globe to sunbathe along the modern, highly developed Riviera Maya. Over  16 million foreigners visited the area  in 2017; three-quarters of them were American.

The Mexican government thinks that a tourist train could turn Maya villages into destinations, too, bringing an infusion of cash and jobs into one of its  poorest and most marginalized regions . Commuters would also benefit from rail travel.

But there are  social and environmental consequences  to laying 932 miles of railway tracks across a region of dense jungle, pristine beaches and Maya villages. And in his  haste to start construction this year , López Obrador – whose energy policy is focused on  increasing fossil fuel production in Mexico  and rebuilding  the coal industry  – has demonstrated little concern for conservation.

Proposed route of the new Maya train

Proposed route of the new Maya train

Pristine forests and Maya ruins at risk

As a  landscape architecture scholar  who has  studied Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, I agree that the Maya Train could bring substantial benefits to this region. But the train must be designed in a way that respects the delicate ecology, indigenous history and social fabric of the region.

The Yucatan, a  biodiverse peninsula that’s geographically isolated from the rest of Mexico and Central America, has already suffered  mass deforestation  due to careless urban development, massive tourism and, in particular,  unsustainable cattle ranching .

For stretches, the Maya Train will run on existing tracks. But other parts of its planned route will cut through some of the only unspoiled ancient forests on the Yucatan Peninsula that are not  federally protected as nature reserves . That bodes badly for endangered native species like the  kanzacam cactus and black howler monkey .

Running a train through virgin forest also puts potentially hundreds of undiscovered ruins at risk. New technology has lead archaeologists to believe that the ancient Maya had many more  cities, shrines and settlements  than have been uncovered and excavated.

There is concern, too, that the construction of a new train line may exacerbate a demographic shift  already underway in the Yucatan .

As young Mexicans have left the small towns of the Yucatan to seek tourism jobs, many traditional Maya villages face abandonment.  In 2015 , 36% of Yucatec residents lived in traditional towns of fewer than 5,000 people – about 10% fewer than in  1990.

A Maya Train with limited stations may spur development of a select few traditional towns. But many more – all those not located within the new rural tourism corridor – will likely see their population dwindle.

Cancun, Mexico, is a global tourist destination located miles from traditional Maya villages. Dronepicr/Wikicommons, CC BY

Cancun, Mexico, is a global tourist destination located miles from traditional Maya villages.  Dronepicr/WikicommonsCC BY

Building a better Maya Train

I don’t believe López Obrador’s ambitious signature infrastructure project should be killed. But the rushed construction schedule could be slowed down, giving the government time to study how the environmental and social costs of the Maya Train  can be mitigated .

Analysts have almost universally pointed out that the government’s  six-year timeline necessarily precludes a deliberate, comprehensive and careful planning and construction process.

Landscape ecology , the study of natural systems, teaches us that simply maintaining green corridors connecting patches of unbroken wilderness can go a long way to protect wildlife, their habitat and the natural drainage patterns of the area.

The railway’s path  could probably be redesigned to avoid severing these ecological arteries, but a sound environmental impact assessment must first be conducted to determine the impact and feasibility of alternative routes. That has not yet been done.

The possible negative social consequences of the Maya Train could also be avoided, or at least compensated for, if the communities impacted by the railway could participate fully in the planning process.

López Obrador says that Mother Earth granted  permission to build the train, but Mexico’s Maya Train was approved at a hastily called popular referendum last year with only  1% voter participation . Some indigenous activists have  rejected the outcome of the vote, which polled Mexicans nationwide about a project that affects mainly Maya villagers.

Many Maya on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula still dress, cook and live as their relatives have for millennia. A traditional home in Yucatan. Credit: Anna ART / Adobe Stock

Many Maya on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula still dress, cook and live as their relatives have for millennia. A traditional home in Yucatan. Credit: Anna ART / Adobe Stock

“We don’t accept it,” a representative of the Zapatistas, a southern Mexican indigenous insurgency,  said of the train  on July 23. “We won’t allow [the government] to come in and destroy” the land.

Other Yucatan residents appear to  support the idea of a tourist train  but want to be consulted closely about its route, stops and offerings, asked about their concerns and given the chance to make design proposals.

This kind of  participatory planning  process would ensure that Yucatec residents are the beneficiaries, not the victims, of the anticipated economic boom.

Done right, the Maya Train could actually trigger an economic conversion with sweeping environmental benefits for the Yucatan. If new ecotourism and  agrotourism businesses grow up around the train, some rural residents will naturally move toward those trades and away from the high-impact, low-efficiency ranching that has so damaged the local ecology.

Slow down

Big public works like the Maya Train take patience, careful planning, thinking and rethinking.

These are  not the hallmarks of López Obrador’s leadership style . The Mexican president insists the $6 billion train will be completed  before the end of his term in 2024  and has mocked journalists who  question the train’s environmental impact .

But the public backlash appears to have forced his government to do some quick course correction.

United Nations-Habitat, the U.N.‘s urban development agency, began  consulting with the Mexico government  in May. U.N.-Habitat’s interim director, Eduardo López Moreno, has called for a more holistic vision of the Maya Train.

“This is not 1,525 kilometers of track,” he said after joining the project. “It’s 1,525 kilometers of opportunities that will improve the quality of life for all inhabitants of southeast Mexico.”

The article ‘Mexico Wants to Run a Tourist Train Through its Maya Heartland — Should It?’ by Gabriel Diaz Montemayor was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

Top image: Ek Balam Maya Archeological Site. Maya Ruins, Yucatan Peninsula. Credit: bobiphil / Adobe Stock

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